Sunday, February 16, 2020

Deconferencing or unconferencing?

Educational conferences are big business and whatever field you work in you'll find a conference somewhere every week of the year. Take a look, for example, at Contact North's excellent overview of conferences in educational technology for the year ahead - a breathtaking 1700 of them! All of them involving a hefty carbon footprint in terms of air travel. As I've written before, we can't go on meeting like this.

Now there's a growing interest in deconferencing; reducing the number of conferences you attend, ultimately to zero. This is not just about reducing our climate anxiety, there is also the question of what you actually gain from attending conferences. Are the benefits to you and your organisation worth the time and effort or do you go simply because you are expected to or simply due to habit? After a while you realise that you have heard most things before and the number of eureka moments per conference is alarmingly low. Over the last year I have been trying to only attend conferences that can be reached by train. One advantage of this is that you have to think carefully before signing up for a conference. Is it really worth those lengthy train journeys and a lot of leisure time sitting on trains and waiting at stations? I'm also aware that train journeys are not always environmentally friendly, especially if the trains are hauled by diesel locomotives. But it's not just about cutting the air miles, it's about rethinking the meaning of conferences and trying to finding new arenas to meet.

I can recommend an excellent post on the topic by Alan Levine (aka CogDog), On deconferencing. He has withdrawn from the conference circuit and explains the reasons and it's not just about carbon footprints. It's also about the exclusivity of big conferences. Many of us who get paid to attend conferences tend to take it all for granted and seldom stop to think how privileged we are. We are part of an exclusive club and we tend to forget that there are millions of academics who cannot afford to attend or face visa restrictions and other barriers even if they can afford the fees. He admits that he was one of the club:
It was for work. It was just part of the job. Even later, when going independent, others still paid my fares in exchange for presenting/workshopping. I earned it, right? And it felt, yes, a bit glamorous. And I was there to to tweet out all the foibles of travel woes, missed planes, rude TSA agents, bland food.
Never thinking about how that looked to someone who did not get such opportunities.
As a road warrior, I was so… justified.
However his main reason for unconferencing is the search for deeper discussion and the limitations of the traditional conference format:
Even now, I picture these large conference halls where most folks are there tweeting slides. 
We need to rethink our conferences or better still devise new arenas for meaningful, accessible and inclusive discussion with less dependence on airlines and expensive hotels.
Conference on… but I am deconferencing. I am looking for better ways to share knowledge, ideas that can include more people and less travel, but just plain… better.
Experiments with digital conferences are promising but we shouldn't focus only on the digital arena. The concept of the unconference has been around for many years and is a physical gathering, generally small-scale, where groups get together and discuss issues of common interest without any keynotes or slideshows. These could also be arranged online. Many conferences fail to harvest the vast amount of knowledge and experience among the participants and the unconference is all about that. Maybe the future is more about more focused small-scale discussion groups, mixing synchronous and asynchronous as well as on-site and online collaboration.

I don't mean we scrap major conferences completely but we will certainly need to reduce their number and find other ways to meet. A major driver of academic conferences is their importance to researchers and demands for accepted conference papers as professional recognition. Maybe we can find new ways of recognising researchers in a more inclusive and interactive arena.


  1. We definitely need to re-consider the conferences and how they are arranged today. Conferences are big business today and the organizers struggle to attract delegates. Actually you could fill your work plan with conferences every day. However, the benefits are not in proportion to the energy spent in time and money.
    Most conferences in my field of education are arranged according to the same form, two or three keynotes and sessions with presentations 10-15 minutes and hardly no discussion afterwards. The most disturbing thing, according to me, is that many delegates are not participating in the discussions at all. Instead they concentrate on the 'next' presentation and how to find their way to that session. In fact many delegates are running back and forth between different sessions and hence missing the opportunity to really focus and learn something new to bring back to the organisation.
    In my field of education I have found only one conference, a small scale one, where delegates choose and stay in the same session during a longer period of time. During these sessions you become acquainted with one another and it´s possible to reflect and develop new ideas of thought. I totally agree that we need to re-consider how conferences are arranged today. We need to develop more online venues which promote inclusion and accessibility and networking in a larger scale.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think most of us recognise what you describe.

  2. I think the COVID phenomena will provoke both. In any case, both paths are recommendable: un- and deconferencing.

  3. I hope so, but changing the traditions of large conferences is like stopping a supertanker.

  4. Thanks for your post, Alastair, amen to that and keep spreading the gospel! I have chosen to attend one conference per term, tops. So far this year, I've only attended online conferences and a minor one held in my home town. Hence, no travel, no hotel. It suits me just fine and ultimately, it benefits the environment. More online conferences to the people!